By Spencer. Complaints that the number of quality roles for actresses in Hollywood pales in comparison with the material written for men have been as old as Hollywood itself—and rightfully so. But if there was a trend among the slate of great films that 2015 had to offer, it was that, for the first year in movie history, women were actually rewarded with richer, meatier roles than their male counterparts. Charlize Theron managed to steal a Mad Max movie from Mad Max. Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) and Alison Brie (Sleeping With Other People) helped reinvent the romantic comedy. Jennifer Jason Leigh of all people was the most memorable part of a Quentin Tarantino movie (The Hateful Eight). Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche shattered the Bechdel Test with two layered, complicated female characters in Clouds Of Sils Maria. And thanks to Daisy Ridley, a whole generation of young girls now dreams of becoming Jedi! Women, not men, are now doing the most exciting work in film, as you’ll see in my list of the movies that made 2015 worth watching.
1. Ex Machina
3. The Danish Girl
4. It Follows
6. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
7. Montage Of Heck
8. Testament Of Youth
9. Far From The Madding Crowd
11. Mr. Holmes
12. Love And Mercy
We start with Ex Machina. I’m under no illusions that a sci-fi film will be a serious contender for Best Picture come Oscar time, but don’t be surprised if it merits a dark horse nomination. That’s thanks in no small part to breakout star Alicia Vikander, who had a blistering year (appearing also in The Danish Girl, Burnt, Testament Of Youth, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E and pretty much stealing them all). Vikander picked up one of her two Golden Globe nominations this year for her performance here as Ava, an eerily lifelife artificial intelligence being subjected to a Turing test. The concept requires a perfect performance—Ava must be relatable, alluring, precise, and vaguely inhuman at the same time—and damn does Vikander deliver. Oscar Isaac is also brilliant as Ava’s creator, a mad mashup of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg with an ego neither one can match, while Domhnall Gleeson is the moral center of the film, trying to figure out whether it’s Ava who is really being tested—or him. Shot with a Stanley Kubrick-meets-Steve Jobs flair by first-time director Alex Garland, it’s a visually haunting and intellectually challenging debut from a filmmaker who might be our next Christopher Nolan. Smart, sexy, and creepy as all hell, it’s a film that asks questions you might not want to know the answers to.
As far as the more traditional Oscar crop goes, there were certainly weightier options this year than Brooklyn—but none of them will dig their way into your heart so deeply. Saorise Ronan’s turn as a young Irish immigrant in the early 1950s is nuanced and complex, defying easy characterization. She’s moral but not innocent, shy and yet sure of herself, vulnerable but resilient. Some might complain that Brooklyn paints an easier picture than reality ever offered; after all, Ronan’s Eilice suffers none of the economic hardships typical of an immigrant. Instead her struggles are on a more universal and emotional level, dealing with the guilt of leaving behind loved ones and the growing realization that “home” is an evasive concept for someone who feels out of place on both sides of the ocean. There’s also a clever culture clash in her love story with the son of a deeply Italian family that provides most of the film’s laughs, not to mention its heart. Charming but far from lightweight, Brooklyn is proof that art house fare doesn’t need to beat you down with melancholy in order to say something worthwhile about the human experience.
On the other hand, there’s The Danish Girl, a film no less amazing despite its unflinching look at a topic some consider uncomfortable. For those willing to put aside their biases, The Danish Girl features the two finest acting performance of 2015 in the same picture. Eddie Redmayne, fresh off his Oscar win for last year’s The Theory Of Everything, manages to top himself with what might be the bravest acting decision in recent memory—taking on the role of 1920s painter and transsexual pioneer Einer Wegener. Redmayne certainly has the face for the role, slipping into the guise of a woman with a plausibility that never devolves into caricature. It’s the way he slowly takes on the gestures and body language of a woman, at first in a studied manner but later as second nature, that makes the performance truly special. But as great as Redmayne is, it’s actually Alicia Vikander’s movie—who in her second Golden Globe-nominated performance of the year, steals the show as his wife, Gerda. Her strength, humor, and unwavering drive to help the husband who is slipping away from her, no matter what cost to herself, makes this one of the most remarkable love stories ever captured on film. It will make you rethink your opinions on gender identity, but even more impressively, it will also make you rethink what it truly means to love someone.
It Follows was the rare horror film that transcended the genre and took it to the edge of art. I sang the praises of this throwback to 80s horror back in October, and it appears I wasn’t alone; It Follows even picked up kudos from the legendarily highbrow crowd at Sight & Sound! It’s a director’s horror movie, to be sure, with the cinematography playing a key role in the film’s pervading sense of dread; whatever the “it” of the title might be (and we get precious few answers about that), the panoramic eye of the camera keeps reminding us it might be coming from any direction. Less dependent on those jump-from-your-seat moments that modern horror movies have so cheapened, It Follows builds up a longer-lasting terror that gets under your skin and stays there.
It took almost 40 years, but a movie has finally surpassed All The President’s Men as the best film about investigative journalism. Spotlight may already be the frontrunner at next year’s Oscars. With an ensemble cast that features Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery, and a dialogue-heavy script that never feels boring, it tells the story of how the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. What makes the picture special is how intricately each piece of the puzzle works together. Cutting seamlessly between each character’s story, it not only shows us how this kind of journalism is a team effort—it subtly insinuates how each of us is just one small part of something much bigger. Because this scandal was not just a failure of the Church. All our institutions—the justice system, the schools, the parishioners, the victims themselves, and yes, the media—played their part. As the film reminds us, it took the actions and inactions of thousands of individuals for a collective crime like this to endure so long—and for that crime to ultimately be uncovered. It’s all connected. And Spotlight, better than any recent film in memory, gives human faces to all the abstract pieces of our social fabric.
The first 45 minutes of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl are trying so hard to be quirky and affected and meta-conscious in that off-putting sort of way that only post-millenials can appreciate, I was just about to turn the whole thing off. Trust me, keep watching. All of that adolescent artifice is just the setup for a movie that grows up before your eyes. A crowd favorite at Sundance, it introduces us to a painfully-awkward teenage film geek who befriends a girl stricken with leukemia. They bond through a shared sense of gallows humor while she passes the weeks of chemotherapy devouring his collection of self-made classic film parodies with terrible puns for titles—Senior Citizen Kane, The Rad Shoes, The Turd Man, 2:48 P.M. Cowboy, The 400 Bros, and so on. Based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews and directed by a former understudy of Martin Scorsese (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon), it’s what The Fault In Our Stars might have been if scripted by Diablo Cody, shot by Wes Anderson, and produced by Francois Truffaut. Only true film buffs may get all the winking references to classic cinema, but the story pairs that intellectualism with a big sense of heart. Ironic that a movie that starts with so much cynicism will, in the end, melt yours away.
Like many in my generation, I was converted to rock music by a band called Nirvana. So I went into Montage Of Heck with more than a little trepidation. Lord knows we’ve had the Kurt Cobain story hacked to death over the years, and I was skeptical that this would be anything more than just another attempt to cash in on 90s nostalgia. But filmmaker Brett Morgen received unprecedented access to Cobain’s personal journals, demos, and home video recordings to create the first truly compelling look into the man’s creative soul. Featuring interviews with Cobain’s parents, bandmates, and ex-girlfriends from his early days, we get an insider’s view of the pain that shaped his music. And through the later interviews with Courtney Love (along with some videos of the couple that are more uncomfortably revealing than words can describe), we finally get something more than the simplistic and cliched “he couldn’t deal with fame” storyline we’ve always been sold about his death. Interspersed with inventive animation that incorporates Cobain’s own journal scrawlings, it’s a unique and challenging examination of our last real rock god.
Jon Snow—well, Kit Harrington—is very much alive in Testament Of Youth, a World War I romance based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain. But yet again, it’s Alicia Vikander (didn’t I tell you she had a great year?) who breathes life into this lyrically photographed, sentimental story of an Oxford student and writer who becomes a battlefield nurse in France and a noted pacifist in the years afterward. Struggling to bear a woman’s burden in a man’s war, Vikander gives another award-worthy performance, expressing more about pain and strength and the hell that is war with just her eyes than most people say in words. Heavy on emotion but delivered with uncommon intelligence and beauty, it’s a film that shows how the scars of war aren’t only suffered by the men who fight it.
On a decidedly lighter note, it should come as no surprise that Far From The Madding Crowd did nothing new—it just did everything extremely well. Based on the Thomas Hardy novel, it stars Carey Mulligan as a defiant Victorian woman who inherits a country estate. Skeptical of the need for men or marriage in her life, she finds herself courted by three suitors: a shepherd, a soldier, and a rich benefactor. Perhaps in 2015, an independent woman whose biggest life decision is which man to marry no longer passes for feminism, but for the 1870s, the character of Bathsheba Everdene showed glimpses of what was to come. And Mulligan, one of our best young actresses, plays her with fire and hidden aching. Like a spiritual prequel to Downton Abbey, it’s a beautifully composed, infectious slice of British melodrama.
Meanwhile, Carol examines two women with a decidedly different set of choices before them. Set in the early 1950s, it’s a love story between two women: the younger Rooney Mara and the seasoned, almost regal Cate Blanchett. Each of them has men in their lives, but through a budding friendship and a cross-country road trip, they face the reality and the consequences of their feelings for each other. Blanchett and Mara give searing performances, and the direction by Todd Haynes captures the nostalgic beauty of the era. What keeps this film from placing higher on my list is that there’s a certain remoteness to it all. You never really feel the emotions of the characters for yourself, and Mara in particular keeps the audience at arm’s length through her quiet demeanor—interestingly, showing far more personality in her scenes with male characters than in her scenes with Blanchett. That’s for a reason: Mara’s character is clearly so enamored with Blanchett’s grace and confidence that she unconsciously fades in her presence. Still, there’s no denying the brilliance of the film, and it will no doubt be a major contender this award season.
Changing gears entirely, Mr. Holmes examines one of the great literary characters of our time through the backward-looking lens of old age. Ian McKellan is his usual stellar self as an elderly Sherlock in the 1940s, no longer entirely in control of his intellectual faculties and fighting both his legacy and his guilt over the case that ended his career. It’s a witty rewrite of the Holmes legend, constantly poking fun at the notion of a real-life Sherlock forced to live a lifetime in the shadow of the fictional character that Watson created around him. Treated as a celebrity by everyone he meets, he suffers a crisis of identity because of his fame—forced in some ways to abandon his true self in order to distance himself from his literary alter ego. And as age betrays his memory, he works to solve a mystery of a different kind: can he recall the missing details of his greatest failure, if only to correct the record for history’s sake? It’s a much more human take on Sherlock Holmes than we’ve seen from either Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey, Jr., managing to be clever and sweet at the same time.
And finally, music biographies are a dime a dozen, but Love And Mercy stands out by being as schizophrenic as its subject matter. It tells the story of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson across two time periods. In the 60s, we see Wilson in the studio, played by Paul Dano, as he crafts the band’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Desperate to stay ahead of The Beatles as they enter their post-Rubber Soul experimental phase, Wilson zips around the studio instructing hired musicians how to give voice to the musical madness in his head. Snapping hairpins onto piano strings, composing double bass lines in different keys, capturing theremins and bicycle bells and barking dogs, we see how Wilson’s creativity and his growing mental illness drove each other (and along the way, get the most lifelike window into the studio recording process ever seen on film). These sequences are intercut with a second storyline in the 80s, with a deteriorated Wilson (now played by John Cusack) trapped under the influence of an unscrupulous psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). While the lack of physical similarity between Dano and Cusack can be distracting—you have to keep reminding yourself they’re supposed to be the same character—the splicing of the two storylines accomplishes the neat trick of giving you a before-and-after look at mental illness. Innovative in approach and execution, it’s exactly what you’d want from a movie about a musician who strived for both qualities himself.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / Clouds Of Sils Maria / Creed / The Martian / Trainwreck / Mad Max: Fury Road / Bridge Of Spies / Inside Out / Slow West / The Hateful Eight /
What We Do In The Shadows / Sleeping With Other People / Phoenix